Relationships On Facebook Are A Double-Edged Sword

by Pamela J. Hobart

Everyone loves to joke about couples with coupley Facebook presences... until they're part of a couple themselves, and then the sappy pictures start cluttering our feeds almost immediately. What gives? You may have suspected that couples are broadcasting their happiness even though it kind of annoys others, and you'd be right: psychologists have just released a new empirical study of relationship posts on Facebook, and it proves exactly that:

"people who have more visible relationships on Facebook are seen as having higher relationship quality... [but] those who display too little relationship visibility or engage in too much relationship disclosure are seen as less likable."

Using over 100 young, heterosexual Canadian couples as their participant pool, the psychology researchers first hired unbiased "coders" to judge how prominently the relationship was reflected in participants' profiles, as well as how committed and satisfied each couple appeared to be. Surprisingly enough, "coders' ratings of satisfaction and commitment were significantly associated with participants' respective self-reports" – i.e., participants probably weren't lying with their Facebook profiles, trying to make themselves look happier to Facebook friends than they really feel.

In the second part of the experiment, the researchers examined likability of Facebook users in relationships by showing profiles to some undergrads for their appraisal. The undergrad raters judged that people with a couple profile photo and an "in a relationship" status were the happiest, and that people with an "in a relationship" status had better relationships than those who did not list themselves as "in a relationship."

But low "relationship disclosure" (that is, not posting about the relationship all the freaking time) led to higher likability ratings at the cost of lower satisfaction ratings, and vice versa. In other words, people who post about their relationships really do seem happy – but they also seem annoying. People who post about things other than their relationship seem more likable than those who withhold posts about the relationship, but they also seem less happy. It's hard to seem both happy and likable, when it comes to portraying a relationship on Facebook. This might be because relationship posters are viewed as honest but lacking in etiquette, or just plain because they make other people feel jealous.

As someone who has posted plenty on Facebook about relationships (and other matters) plenty over the past ten years, I find this research interesting but far from action guiding. Sharing about your relationship on Facebook might make you slightly less likable to others (especially amongst your relatively loose social ties), but it's not about to be the overriding factor in whether you have any friends at all.

Some people want to make their relationships seem happy because – surprise – they are happy. In this sense, social media usage can be just as much about honest self-disclosure as it is about deception. Though dwelling in a state of "social comparison" induced by Facebook makes people sad, it could also be motivating. There's reason to think that married people are happier than single people (and married people are also happier than cohabitors), but Millennials are marrying later than every generation prior to them. If some jealousy-provoking Facebook browsing sessions are what it takes for my cohort to learn that and grow up, then maybe that's worth it.

Image: Piotr Marcinski / Fotolia, Giphy (3)